In 1961, Gorgeous George found himself at the tail-end of a legendary career.
Gorgeous George (real name George Wagner) rose to fame in the post-war boom of the 1940s when television sets first began making their way into American households. Desperate for cheap content to fill up programming schedules, television stations started broadcasting professional wrestling matches, and the stage was set for a new form of entertainment to flourish. But for wrestling to thrive, it needed a star.
Baseball had Ruth. Hollywood had Hepburn. Pro wrestling had Gorgeous George. But unlike Ruth and Hepburn, George wasn’t loved by the American public.
He was despised.
He’d saunter to the ring in a fancy flowing robe as “Pomp and Circumstance” echoed throughout the arena (he’s credited as the first wrestler to use entrance music). Rose petals were tossed at his feet as he walked. Before stepping through the ropes, a mink rug had to be placed on the canvas. Perfume was sprayed from turnbuckle to turnbuckle. George demanded the referee disinfectant his hands before performing his routine inspection of both competitors for any concealed foreign objects. During the inspection, George would scream, “Get your filthy hands off of me!” a catchphrase that would become iconic.
There were bad guys – referred to as heels – in professional wrestling before, but there was nothing like George. All of the glitz and glamour and spectacle pro wrestling has become synonymous with today can be traced back to him in some form or another.
In the way we think of wrestling heels today, Gorgeous George was the first. And his stardom would captivate crowds throughout the 1940s & ’50s.
Which brings us back to 1961.
George, now a living legend, was doing press at a radio station in Las Vegas to promote his upcoming match against Freddie Blassie – another wrestling legend at the tail end of his career (though Blassie would have another hall of fame worthy second act as a manager in the WWF during the ’70s and ’80s). During the interview, George launched into one of his patented tirades. He called himself the greatest of all time, he talked about how pretty his blonde hair was, he ran down Blassie as a bum who didn’t stand a chance.
To use another insider wrestling term, he was “talking them into the building,” meaning convincing people to come out to the show by simply talking trash. And it worked. It worked so well, in fact, that a young boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, who was also at the station that day to promote his upcoming fight, felt compelled enough by the whole ordeal to attend George’s match. Years later, this boxer would recall, “I saw 15,000 people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it.”
After the match, this young boxer got invited to the locker room, where Gorgeous George gave him a piece of life-changing advice: “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.”
That young boxer’s name was Cassius Clay, better remembered today as Muhammad Ali – a man whose never-ending mouth became as legendary as his fists.
While a heel’s end goal in wrestling is always the same – make people pay money to see you get your comeuppance – the magic is in how that heel goes about being hated. Guys like George and Ric Flair played up the arrogance and cockiness. Roddy Piper and Jake Roberts were diabolical and psychopathic. Big Van Vader and Kane were terrifying monsters. The Iron Sheik and Yokozuna, while monsters in their own right, mainly were hated for being foreign – an outdated and potentially dangerous trope better left in wrestling’s past.
But in all my years of watching wrestling, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a heel be…vulnerable.
And that’s exactly what happened on the Feb 23 edition of AEW Dynamite as wrestling’s best heel today cried in the center of the ring. And rather than sit here and provide a summary of what was said, which would be incredibly disrespectful, please take the time to watch this 8 minute and 24-second clip.
Watching this live, I could feel something special was happening. It must’ve been how folks in attendance felt watching Michael Jordan drop 63 points in the Boston Garden…
This is special, and people will be talking about this forever, and thank God I’m alive right now to see it.
Make no mistake, this is one of the greatest segments to ever air on a wrestling program. Not only that, much like George putting on a sequined robe, this pushes the art of wrestling forward to new heights.
So why does MJF’s promo work so well? For starters, it’s relatable. There isn’t a single person who hasn’t in some way been affected by bullying. And that’s perhaps especially true for wrestling fans, seeing as the art form tends to draw in those who feel outcasted and alone, providing them with a sense of escapism we all experience from the entertainment we enjoy. Secondly, this promo tells a story, weaving us through MJF’s origin beautifully and explaining why he is the way he is. MJF’s promo doesn’t “break character,” as some online have suggested – it illuminates his character; it brings us deeper into his story, which is a rarity in wrestling. So often, wrestling operates on the surface level of narrative. The stories and feuds are clear-cut and straightforward, devoid of any type of nuance or intricacies other art forms – like literature, for example – traffic in regularly.
To illustrate this point, let’s say I asked you to cut a wrestling promo right now. What would that sound like?
You’d probably put some bass in your voice. You’d yell and wave your arms around, hitting on every single professional wrestling cliche imaginable as you talked about how you were going to decimate your opponent in the ring. But at no point would you ever think about crying or delving deep into past trauma to explain why you have to emerge from your match victorious. Because that’s not how pro wrestling has conditioned you to think about the art form. That is, until now.
But MJF can’t take all the credit for this potentially groundbreaking feud. He needs a dancing partner, and he has the perfect one in CM Punk.
Playing the hero (maybe?) in all this is Punk – the biggest star of his generation. And ever since his debut in AEW, there’s a common theme running through his story arc: CM Punk is responsible for his villains.
Remember Punk’s feud with Eddie Kingston? Much like MJF, Kingston became vulnerable with the audience, opening up about his insecurities and mental health issues that plagued him, detailing how professional wrestling served as a means of escape, a way of finding a little bit of happiness in his otherwise bleak world. But who was there to play spoiler, dragging him back down into the muck, judging him? CM Punk.
Fast forward a few weeks, and we have a similar situation playing out, with MJF placing blame at the feet of Punk, accusing him of abandoning him at a time when MJF needed his hero the most. And like all great villains, MJF is right. Or, at the very least, we can see that MJF’s argument has some merit, even if we disagree with how he goes about handling his business. So in the absence of a hero, the persona of MJF was created to fill the void. And come to find out, the “you” in MJF’s catchphrase “I’m better than you…” is a direct shot at Punk, adding yet another layer to this incredible feud.
Like wrestling’s version of Batman and the Joker, one would not exist without the other. The two men, Punk and MJF, will forever be linked together in wrestling history, so how fitting their next match consists of both men being tethered together by a chain.
But the most interesting part of this segment on Feb 23 comes at the very end, with Punk standing across the ring from MJF, one hand closed in a fist ready to strike, the other open, as he asks a simple question.
“Is that true? Is that real?”
And it’s here, in this blurry space between reality and fiction, where pro wrestling is at its best. And it’s a space that no other art form can occupy.
During the promo, it’s impossible to tell where MJF, the character, stops and Maxwell Tyler Friedman, the person, starts. And like many other great moments in wrestling, it’s this collision between fiction and reality, of what’s a part of “the show” and what’s a part of “real-life” that makes all this so fascinating.
As far as what comes next, I have no clue, nor do I have any desire to sit and speculate. We’re in the hands of two masterful storytellers, regardless of the medium. So let’s sit back and enjoy the ride.
Right now, we’re all a young Muhammad Ali, and this generation’s Gorgeous George just talked us into the building.